It was a waiting game that would last, at most, eight seconds. Donnie Gay had just scored 80 points on a light tan bull named Kung Fu at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City last Saturday night, surviving a humpy-backed, gut-wrenching whirl that would have spun the juice from a lemon. Now the only man standing between Gay and an unprecedented eighth World Bull Riding Championship, rodeo's most resounding title, was Charlie Sampson.
Sampson was second in the overall standings in the next-to-last performance of the NFR, exactly $7,737.27 behind Gay, and he needed 85 points or better to win the go-round and knock Gay out of the money. He'd drawn a brown bull called Hesston, with horns as big as antlers—just one of what another rider had called "some of the rankest bulls ever assembled on the face of the earth." These critters were not content merely to buck a cowboy off but would also try to hook him in the ribs on his way down to earth and stomp him into the arena floor like so many clumps of sod. As the spectators in the sold-out Myriad arena quieted, Sampson took his wrap, tucked in his chin and nodded for the gate to be opened. Turn me loose, boys, I can't ride him in here....
Welcome, pardners, to the NFR at OKC, otherwise known as the cowboy Super Bowl, an annual rite of December in which the top 15 money-winners in bareback riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing, single steer roping and bull riding descend on Oklahoma City to compete for more than $900,000 in prize money and to determine who will be the world champion in each event. After a year of hopscotching among the 650 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned rodeos across North America, the best cowboys and toughest livestock finally mosey into OK City at the same time for 10 performances spread over nine days. It's without question the top rodeo in the world. And more. It's a slice of Americana as tasty as the pickled pigs' feet that one can purchase in the lobby of the Sheraton Century Center hotel across the street from the arena. At the hotel last week, dime-store cowboys, Okie plowboys and tight-jeaned cowgirls rubbed elbows with the genuine article, the calf ropers and bull riders.
As usual, all NFR performances were sold out this year—its 20th in Oklahoma City. There was a folksy, friendly atmosphere to the proceedings, typified by one of the many hand-scrawled banners hanging inside the Myriad center. This one read GO UNCLE KENT. It was directed at Kent Cooper, a saddle bronc rider from Declo, Idaho, who would finish second in his event with $77,610.03. The name Cooper is to rodeo what the name Johnson is to the NBA. In addition to Uncle Kent, this year's NFR featured Coopers named Roy, Jimmie, Clay Tom and Clay O'Brien. Clay Tom and Clay O'Brien are unrelated; Roy and Clay Tom are brothers; Jimmie and Roy are cousins; Uncle Kent isn't related to any of...oh, forget it. Just believe it when you hear that rodeo folk are one big happy family.
Roy Cooper, 29, came into the NFR with his sixth calf-roping title pretty much assured; he led his nearest rival, Dee Pickett, by $26,376. Cooper and Pickett are—what else?—best of friends who spent the week before the competition practicing together at Cooper's home in Durant, Okla. They were also one-two in the all-around competition, rodeo's most prestigious buckle and one that Cooper had walked away with last year, having gotten a record $153,391 in earnings. This year Pickett got the title, not to mention $122,618.18.
But who the heck invited all those terrible bulls to this party? Animals so ornery that no less an authority than 63-year-old Freckles Brown, a rodeo legend in Oklahoma, exclaimed, "You ain't woofin' they're rank. I believe as rank a bunch of bulls as I've seen in the National Finals." Brown should know. He rode bulls for 37 years, retiring at the advanced age of 53. At 46, Brown made the most famous ride ever seen at the NFR when he conquered Tornado, a bull that in six years of competition had never been ridden.
On Tuesday night only three of the top 15 bull riders in the world rode their animals the required eight seconds—a record of futility rarely matched in the NFR's 26 years. "We're going to let the bulls decide who wins," said PRCA director of bull riding Bryan McDonald, who saw to it that, for the first time at the NFR, the bulls were exercised a half mile every other day between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. so they'd be juiced up to buck their worst that night. "In the past we haven't brought in all these really rank bulls that make a guy look bad on television," says McDonald, "so a lot of it came down to judging. This year there was too much at stake with Donnie going for his eighth championship and all."
Gay had won his seventh World Bull Riding Championship in '81, which had tied him for the record with Jim Shoulders, his boyhood idol and a longtime family friend. He wanted to ride long enough to break Shoulders's record. In the 1982 NFR, however, Gay reruptured a groin that had "exploded" during a ride that August, forcing him to retire. "The scar tissue from all the years of riding made my groin muscles just like rotten rubber bands," the 31-year-old Gay says.
Gay, who had averaged more than 150 rodeos a year for the previous nine years, went to work for his father, Neal, a stock contractor in Mesquite, Texas. "Donnie was lost," says McDonald, a bull rider himself. "The rush of adrenaline you get from bull riding can be addictive."
For the first three months of his retirement Gay couldn't so much as sit on a horse. "So I started doing that Jane Fonda workout to get so I could at least stand with my legs apart," he says. "Then that invitation came from the President, and I got to thinking a man can stand anything for eight seconds."